From Religious Separatism to Political Mobilization: "American Shtetl" ReviewedHistorians in the News
tags: Jewish history, Orthodox Judaism, Haredim, Kiryas Joel
Stolzenberg, Nomi M. and Myers, David N. American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021.
This is a big, readable study about how Satmer Hasidic Jews became an influential Republican voting bloc in Orange County, New York. You must work through a lot of history to get there, but patience—this is quite a story.
First, the Satmers. The community takes its name from the town of Szatmar or Satu Mare, a part of East Central Europe which belonged to Hungary, then Romania, and back again, finally becoming Romanian in 1945. The Satmers were Haredim, meaning “those who tremble.” Their devotional goal was to be free from the contaminating influences of both contemporary culture and Jewish practices that were not sufficiently rigorous.
The major figure was Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the founder of the Satmer Hasidic Dynasty. He survived Bergen Belsen while most of his followers in Northeast Hungary were deported or killed. After the war, he lived for a time in Switzerland and Palestine before arriving in New York on Rosh Hashanah, 1946. He founded the world’s first and largest Satmer community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In founding of Kiryas Joel, Teitelbaum sought to replicate in somewhat mythic terms an Eastern European Jewish village, a shtetl that would stand as a place free from the temptations of urban culture and its contaminating dangers. Set within the village of Monroe in Orange County, this “Traditional Community of Modesty and Values” or “Shtetl on a Hill” today serves a rapidly growing population, a beacon of devotional rigor, albeit one with the highest poverty rate of any community in the nation.
On the banks of that large stream that flows through American history, the authors locate Kiryas Joel amidst dozens of other communities which at one time or another represented the quest for religious perfection. In the fabled “burned over district” in central New York—mother lode for such initiatives—the Mormons, Millerites, and other perfectionists girded their loins as they prepared to storm the ramparts of heaven. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the secular “space” created by the First Amendment, they sought to build more or less perfect communities.
This historical and explanatory material is a necessary prelude to what follows. As it grows and evolves, Kiryas Joel, despite the best intentions, becomes deeply enmeshed in American political life and culture. As religious purity demands that a confined and professedly intolerant community be set apart from others, Kiryas Joel must litigate to sustain its separatism and, when needed, engage in down and dirty politics.
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